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Veterans’ Suicide Hotline Hopes To Curb Military Deaths

© Leesburg Today - 06/25/2015

Two years ago, former U.S. Marine John Hills tried to kill himself. Today, he works to make sure other veterans also rise from that low point.

In Hill's case, military friend Zach Kestle noticed Hills' depression in a Facebook post, and drove to his house to keep Hills from committing the act. Hills' experience has led to the creation of Operation Atlas, a 24/7 suicide hotline that is run by veterans.

""When I called the veteran suicide hotline, it was a 22-year-old who just graduated college,"" Hills said. ""As a combat veteran, I didn't feel comfortable talking to him. But I can talk to any veteran in the world. I feel like I'm not judged because they've been through the same things.""

The goal of Operation Atlas is to drive down the number of suicides by veterans, currently occurring a rate of 22 a day.

""That's way too many,"" Hills said. The National Guard based in Leesburg lost four to suicides in the past two years, he noted.

Hills served on an elite anti-terrorism security team in numerous locations around the globe, and his passion for helping brothers and sisters in service is what drives the nonprofit organization, which has five employees.

Recently, Hills responded to a caller who was suicidal, and upon arriving to the man's home, found a pistol on a table. ""The main goal is to talk them down. If they're calling, metaphorically speaking, they're ready to pull the trigger,"" Hills said. ""We try to remind them what means the most to them.""

Hills' children, who are 3 and 4 years old, mean the most to him, and Hills and his team of volunteers have to find those connections within other service veterans to ""talk them down.""

Hills said numerous factors can play a part in a service member's urge to commit suicide, such as survivor's guilt, depression, and losing a job. For Hills, it was a divorce.

""It makes you feel alone and that nobody cares about you,"" Hills said.

The hotline is for any service member, and there are weekly support group meetings held at the Falls Church VFW. Hills said the organization's goal is to provide help statewide in the next year. Virginia is home to more veterans than any other state, he noted.

""Virginia is losing a lot of good men and women. We want to change that,"" Hills said.

More information about Operation Atlas, and a link to a GoFundMe page, can be found at facebook.com/operationatlas1. The hotline number is 703-470-9228.

Hills wants to create a safety net for all veterans in need, in part because of the help he received from Kestle.

""That connection made me realize I wasn't alone and someone was still there for me,"" Hills said. ""That's what we want to create here.""

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